when time carves its lines
When I started this project I wrongly assumed that a story such as mine with my Lebanon could be told with 29 photographs and 29 small writings. With every passing day I could see that life does not work like that. The stories that came to my mind and married with my photographs each day barely scratched the surface of the immensity that life in Lebanon was to me. Life engraves lines in us, each experience life changing, each event leaving its unique signature on our aging skin. No aging face is designed like any other, in the same way that no life is like another and no fingerprint is the same.
I met this lady in the street while in Beirut, her name is Aida, she could not tell me for sure how old she was and she sold cigarettes for a living. Her lines are evidence to a life that would take ages to tell. Nothing is more humbling than looking at a face like Aida’s.
Beirut, one of the oldest cities known to man, destroyed by earthquakes at least 7 times, has been known by names such as Colonia, Julia, Augusta, Felix and Berythus, and was home to the world’s first law school. The teachers of Beirut School of Law helped draft the famous Justinian Code. Beirut was then named ‘Mother of Legislation’.
Despite the various total destructions and the later occupations of Beirut by Arabs, Crusaders, Romans, Ottomans, French mandate, and most recently Israeli and Syrian presences, the beautiful and buzzing cosmopolitan city was and still is referred to as ‘Paris of the middle east’. I still remember being in total awe of how many different languages are spoken on the city streets and the impressively rich culture and panorama of arts adorning its galleries and museums.
To be in Beirut is to experience all that the past as well as the future has to offer and it is about finding yourself living the moment to the extreme with people who choose to love life as a first priority. Yes the Beirut feeling is contagious and it can leave you longing to go back with every single part of your being.
excavation site in downtown Beirut
More than half of my life In Lebanon was spent by the beach. We used to not even wait till school was over before moving to our summer little home by the seaside. With life on the shores of the Mediterranean came certain traditions, like swimming one hour-long to reach a cargo ship and jump from its deck, take a knife and a lemon on a ‘haske’ (a flat wooden row-boat), and dive to some nearby rocks to loosen sea urchins from the rocks, open them, clean them with seawater and then finally garnish them with some lemon juice before scooping out the orange caviar and humming our enjoyment. I can say for certain that life by the beach was always the highlight of the whole year for us children. This past summer I wanted to relive another special excitement from my childhood, which was waking up at dawn and joining the fishermen for 5 or 6 hours to witness the process of their daily catch. There is no meditation as soothing as those early morning hours spent rocked by slight movement of the boat, warmed by the early rays of morning sun and serenaded by fishermen’s songs as they dive in and out of the water in search for their sea dwellers.
Two arched openings in a stone wall with a colonette in the middle and a decorative motif on top, this is a Mandaloon. You see them in most traditional homes in Lebanon and the reason I am telling you about them is the story behind the name ‘Mandaloon’.
Picture a young woman, 100 or so years ago, shy and reserved, on a cool summer night, sitting behind this window, her hand caressing a plant that grows in a pot outside her window. She is gazing at the stars while the breeze gently cools down her blushing cheeks. Below is her suitor serenading her with the sounds of his mandolin and hoping that she might gift him with a quick look before she retires to her sleep.
And that is only one small detail of the beautiful arched stone houses of Lebanon where light and air travel freely.
the Lebanese window
stone arches of the mandaloon
to walk with the clouds
A long time ago, before the camera and I were companions, I went back to Lebanon with a very good friend who loved to follow the unknown. We were near the top of one of Lebanon’s two mountain ranges when we spotted a phenomenon. On a bright and sunny day, a lone cloud on top of the mountain was dancing in circles as the wind spun it round and round and round again. My friend suggested we follow that cloud and so we did. After hiking to the top of that mountain where if you stretched your arm up high you can pass it through the spinning cloud, we met an old shepherd named “Abou Akram”. In his aging eyes we met the essence of kindess and her sister wisdom. He lived in a stone hut alone for 9 months of the year and tended to his goats and sheep comforted by the occasional visits from his wife who lived with the rest of his big family down in the valley. Abou Akram invited us to a cup of tea that he cooked on a small fire and he spoke to us of his life. He said he had read all that needed to be read, heard all the stories that needed to be told and ate all the delicacies that needed to be eaten. Now, he can only find his peace here on top of the mountain. He said people seek him out to ask him questions about their future, because you see, his mind became so clear that he could now see. “I am a seer” he said. When I looked around me and all I could see were hills, clouds, sky, grass and rocks, I asked the seer how he could bear being alone. He then looked at me with eyes overcome by tenderness and filled with tears and he said: “alone? I am never alone? Don’t you see him? Can’t you see God? He is in ground, in the air, in the sky, in the rocks, in the very air I breathe! Love is flooding my heart and I all I can be is thankful. With this kind of love you are simply never alone…”
no I am never alone
The ancient remains of the Roman columns in Sur (Tyre)~ Lebanon
According to Herodotus the city of Tyre was founded around 2750BC, the ancient Phoenician city and birthplace of Elissa and Europa (the Phoenician lady in Greek mythology from which the continent of Europe’s name was derived). Soaked with history, mentioned in the old testament as the city where pride lived and caused God to drive Nebuchadnezzar to attack the city that gloated over the fall of Jerusalem. The bible mentions Tyre as a place that Jesus visited the shores of to perform healing on a Gentile. The people of this city were the first to venture and sail the waters of the mediterranean forming colonies in Greece, North Africa (Carthage), Spain (Tartessus and Cadiz), Sicily, Corsica and the island of the Aegean Sea. As with other Lebanese ancient cities Tyre had to suffer the attacks of Alexander the Great, the advance of the Crusades and the rule of the Roman Empire among others.
Today despite the UNESCO declaring the site a ‘world heritage site’, the remains are facing deterioration and erosion from rainwater and the natural elements due to lack of proper maintenance.
Standing there felt like being transported into a different time, a different place and you can almost hear the echos of the ancient voices that still vibrate in its old walls.
wall detail ~ Sur
Each time I go back to Lebanon I find myself stunned again and again at the amount of talent, creativity and ‘ability to do’ that lives in the Lebanese people. These are people that love life so much that they can celebrate it in a million unique ways. But the greatest mystery of all and the most difficult thing to understand is how a country of bright minds can allow corruption to still rule the day. For example, in Lebanon today and since the end of the civil war in 1991, homes still have to tolerate unreasonable rationing and live without power for several hours every day. Those in charge blame it on the aftereffects of the war and people have no choice but to live with fabrications that not only rob them of their rights but also lock them into impossible situations that limit their capabilities to express their fountain of creativity. I know that corruption finds fertile ground in almsot all developing countries, but it hurts endlessly to see it infecting my beloved jewel of the middle east.
photo taken: small boy in window~ North Lebanon
At about age 5 or 6, my sister and I used to love playing house games with the neighborhood children in our village. We had an unfinished floor in our home that was still cement walls and bricks and we created our own pretend little world there. We had a basket tied to a rope from the kitchen window on the top floor and we snuck food ingredients down in it to create our own breads, coffee and other pretty disgusting recipes that we ate with total pride. We also found there an old discarded yellow closet that we declared to be our very own church. We acquired all sorts of iconic pictures, crosses and religious signs and hung them inside the walls of the yellow closet. We would go inside it with complete reverence and pray daily for miracles. One day a miracle finally happened. We heard a big bang on the walls of our little yellow church that made it vibrate miraculously! We ran yelling in awe and in great fear with shaking knees declaring our religious status and direct connection to all that is holy. It was only a couple of years later that our neighbor Nabiha, the very same one who offered us the yummy bread from her ‘saj’, gigglingly confessed to have thrown rocks at us to make believers out of us.
photo taken: My daughter visiting a favorite church or ours in the mountain in Lebanon.
veiled~ muslim girl in Tripoli
In a geographically small country like Lebanon, people of different religions live side by side. It is so difficult to explain how religions, tradition, cultural norms, rules, and social order organize themselves there. Within each religion are sects, groups, different belief systems, different dress codes and different tolerances.
Having been born to a christian family, the only veils I saw in my village were worn by older aunts and grandmothers who wore them in the church out of respect or from self imposed reverence. With some of our muslim neighbors, the veil was imposed on girls as they reached puberty and it was mandatory.
The veil has become a very hot global issue in the last decade and attached to it is the idea of freedom of choice or the lack of, feminism or living in the shadow of men, a religious statement or a political one and it goes on even to the courts of Europe that had to deal with the issue outside of the muslim world.
The veil originally was only worn by the wives of the prophet Mohammed, and was only much later introduced as a symbol of conformity to a strict religious belief.
veils are not work by muslim girls until puberty
the bakeress at 'souk el tayeb'~ Beirut~ Lebanon
I don’t think I can remember a single meal at our home in Lebanon that did not include Lebanese bread. There is a saying in Lebanon “between us is bread and salt” which means that we are friends, we are close, we are on ‘sharing life’ terms. And as a child I remember that neighbors’ doors were always open and we children were able to just walk in and out throughout the neighborhood without any type of formality. We had a neighbor living right across the little road from us and she used to have a special old fashioned oven called saj outside her home where she made fresh bread. I still remember smelling the firewood burning signaling the start of the bread making process and running up to her home with wide eyes as she happily made us her special bread called “mtabbkah”. This was a flat loaf sprinkled with sugar and then folded to let the sugar melt inside and it was mouthwatering.
With the modernism of Lebanon, these types of ovens are becoming a rarity. I was so thrilled to see the special traditional market in the center of Beirut (souk el tayyeb) that celebrates old traditions and the best of homemade delicacies that Lebanon has to offer.
the juice seller